Set in a future time ‘a few years from now’ Mad Max tells the story of a battle between nomad bikers who are running rampant on the roads, and the policemen who are chasing them, trying to curb their anarchic behaviour. Max Rockatansky, played by a youthful Mel Gibson in a role that launched his career, is one of the policemen working for the law enforcement group, Main Force Patrol (MFP). Max divides his time between his commitment to his family, his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and son Sprog (Brendan Heath), and the dangerous demands of his job. After a series of tragic events, an increasingly solitary Max finds himself doomed to a life on the road, and the film becomes a fully-fledged revenge narrative.
“No other Australian films have influenced world cinema and popular cinema as widely and lastingly as George Miller’s Mad Max movies – Mad Max, Mad Max 2 (US title, The Road Warrior) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.” 1
Mad Max is a landmark film in Australian cinema history. While it started out as a small, independently funded production, it went on to achieve phenomenal national and international success, and spawned two sequels, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Film scholar Adrian Martin has persuasively argued that no other Australian films have had such a profound or extensive influence on world cinema as this trilogy of films.2 So, how did this important film get to be made, and what was it about Mad Max that created such global interest, leading to several sequels?
The origins of Mad Max began with the fateful meeting of George Miller and Byron Kennedy at a film seminar in Melbourne in 1971. Both Miller and Kennedy had already made short films before, but it was here that they decided to join forces and make films together. Their first film was the short, Violence in the Cinema, Part 1, a playful engagement with debates about screen violence that were provoked by films like A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Straw Dogs (1971). This film found an audience and was distributed commercially and sold overseas.3 In 1975 the Kennedy-Miller team turned their attention to their first feature film, Mad Max. Miller co-wrote the screenplay with journalist James McCausland, and assumed the directorial role. Kennedy produced the film, but was also creatively involved in some filming and post-production work. Mad Max was independently financed with a budget of around $380,000, and while there was a time towards the end of post-production where they literally ran out of money, it went on to make over $100 million worldwide.
In the late 1970s the Australian film industry was dominated by two types, or models, of filmmaking. These were the disreputable ‘ocker comedy’ (The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (Bruce Beresford, 1972) and Alvin Purple (Tim Burstall, 1973)) and the ‘well-made’ quality film (Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) and The Getting of Wisdom (Beresford, 1977)). Australian cinema historian Tom O’Regan, says that Mad Max’s arrival onto cinema screens ‘rudely shook up’ the film industry in a number of ways. First, it was a genre film, which up until then was uncommon in Australian filmmaking. Second, it was independently funded, in an industry that relied largely on funding from government sources. Third, its international success was more the result of a growing cult status rather than a launch at a film festival such as Cannes. And, fourth, it proposed very different ideas of what was meant by ‘Australianness’. So, as O’Regan explains, Mad Max challenged a litany of conventional practices, and it did this in a highly visible way on a national and international stage.4
Further evidence of the film’s provocation can be found in reviews written at the time. Most critics acknowledged its technical virtuosity, but were concerned about its violence. O’Regan himself said that when he first saw the film he ‘remembers saying aloud to no one in particular in the theatre, “This film is evil”’. 5 Producer and writer Philip Adams shared some of O’Regan’s anxiety and said that while ‘Dr. Miller has … revived a geriatric genre .… [his] epic has all the moral uplift of Mein Kampf’. 6 Adams even suggested the film should be banned. Film reviewer Martha Du Bose, expressed a point of view that was widely shared, and that was that the film was ‘extremely violent [and] patently lacking in redeeming social value’. 7
When asked, in an interview for Cinema Papers, where the idea of Mad Max came from, George Miller spoke about the ‘car culture’ that he saw when he was growing up in regional Queensland, and that he continued to witness when he worked as a doctor in a casualty department in a city hospital.
“Every year, in an entirely predictable fashion, about a thousand people die on Victorian roads. In spite of our efforts we are not able to modify those numbers significantly. The statistics are so consistent; it is as though we are operating under some immutable law of nature. We make funny noises, but none of us really understands what’s happening. The USA has its gun culture, we have our car culture.” 8
And yet, while the story of Mad Max may have initially been motivated by real-life ‘car culture’ and the trauma of car accidents, the film’s depiction of stylised cars and spectacular car crashes is as far away from documentary realism as you could imagine. Instead, the ‘car culture’ of the film is one that replays different elements of cinematic genres such as the western, the road movie and the action film, underlining the fact that the greatest source of inspiration for Mad Max is the cinema.
In his Mad Max Movies book Adrian Martin elaborates on the centrality of the cinema to Mad Max. He begins by declaring that George Miller is ‘Australia’s most completely cinematic filmmaker’ 9 and that his passion for the cinema is evident in every aspect of the film’s formal construction: in its audiovisual palette and its montage construction, as well as in its many references to other films. Martin goes on to cite the many ways in which Miller is inspired by some quite classical filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Aldrich.10 But, while Martin acknowledges the classical cinematic lineage that Miller’s film draws on, he also argues that:
“Mad Max is Australia’s greatest B movie. That it is not often acknowledged as such is due to several extenuating factors, such as its huge box office success and the retroactive gloss cast by its much more expensive sequels.”11
In making this claim about Mad Max, Martin both celebrates and takes pleasure in some of the film’s more expressive formal strategies such as ‘multiplying the cuts and insert shots’ and ‘boosting the musical score with a large orchestra at full throttle’. 12 These B movie features are part of Miller’s playful, experimental, and sometimes outlandish, choreography of images, sounds and montage that immerse us in a world of car chases, motorcycle rides, collisions and angry confrontations, with cars framed low to the road, the road unfurling in front of us, and a series of ricocheting point of view shots that take us inside and outside of cars.
But Miller also uses these editing strategies to pose questions that are at the heart of many crime stories. The very first shot of the film is of a building called The Halls of Justice, and this dissolves into a view of a road, then a skull and a road sign pointing to Anarchie Road. From an imposing image of justice to an image of anarchy and lawlessness, this juxtaposition of images invites us to question what form justice will take in this film. These questions continue when we are introduced to a man who is viewing two people making love through a gun’s telescopic sight. This voyeur turns out to be a policeman called Roop and his surveillance operation is interrupted with a call on CB radio directing him and his fellow policeman The Big Bopper to chase a ‘cop killer’. Such questions about whether there is any difference between the policeman and the cop killer continue to be asked throughout the film.
Mad Max has gone on to be regarded as a key film in Australian cinema history and has been the subject of many erudite and scholarly analyses such as those by Ross Gibson and Meaghan Morris who have examined different ideas of ‘Australianness’ that the film explores. For example, in a close reading of the third film in the trilogy Beyond Thunderdome, Gibson discusses the landscape and suggests that the trilogy can be read as ‘a chronicle of the collective loss of faith in the drive to conquer the environment’. 13 In an article called ‘White Panic, or Mad Max and the Sublime’ Morris provides a particularly insightful analysis of Mad Max where she asks how a ‘national’ cinema like Australia’s has dealt with ‘the psycho dynamics of whiteness’. 14 These issues of the landscape, whiteness, indigenous relations, and invasion tap into larger questions about what it means to live in Australia.
Thirty years after its release, Mad Max continues to exert an ongoing influence on all forms of cultural production. At the 2009 Venice Biennale the artist Shaun Gladwell exhibited ‘MADDESTMAXIMVS’ which was inspired by Mad Max in a number of ways, from the video that features a black-helmeted motorcycle rider in a hostile landscape to the fully functioning ‘sculptural’ replica of Max’s V8 Interceptor car that was part of the installation. The remix artists Soda_Jerk have also drawn on Mad Maxin their trilogy of video works titled, Terror Nullius, where they explore cinematic representations of Australia and their connections to histories of invasion. One of the pieces in the trilogy, titled ‘Picnic at Wolf Creek’, features a plot that includes ‘the girls from Hanging Rock’, ‘the psycho from Wolf Creek’ and a ‘rescue attempt by Mad Max and Skippy’, combining several mythic characters and narratives from Australian cinema.15
In addition to these ongoing influences, the Mad Max trilogy is about to become a quartet. In 1999, on the anniversary of the first Mad Max film, George Miller announced that there would be a Mad Max 4. Out of the many possible reasons to make a fourth Mad Max film, Miller has spoken about CGI and the way in which these technical developments would make the Mad Max films ‘a whole new ball game’. 16 However, just as there were obstacles and problems encountered with the production of the first film, so there appear to have been many more with this latest instalment. In early 2012, ten years after the initial announcement, Mad Max 4: Fury Road is listed as currently in production and the road warrior’s journey is set to continue.
1. Adrian Martin, The Mad Max Movies, Sydney, Currency Press and Screen Sound Australia, 2003, p. 1.
2. Adrian Martin, The Mad Max Movies, p. 1.
3. ‘Mad Max’, Cinema Papers, April 1979, pp. 43–9.
4. Tom O’Regan, ‘The Enchantment with Cinema: Film in the 1980s’ in Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan (eds), The Australian Screen, London, Penguin, 1989, p. 126.
5. Ibid, p. 126.
6. Phillip Adams, ‘The Dangerous Pornography of Death’, Bulletin, 1 May, 1979, pp. 38–41.
7. Martha Dubose, ‘Violent, Lacking in Social Value’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 July 1979, p. 21. 8. George Miller interview, Cinema Papers, April 1979, p. 47.
9. Martin, p. 12.
10.Martin, p. 26.
11.Martin, p. 14.
12.Martin, p. 14.
13.Ross Gibson, ‘Yondering: A Reading of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’ in South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 1992, p. 174.
14.Meaghan Morris, ‘White panic or Mad Max and the sublime’ in Kua-Hsing Chen (ed.), Trajectories: Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, London and New York, Routledge, 1998, p. 240. 15.‘Pixel Pirate 11 & Soda_Jerk Interview’, AE. Reblog. Available at www.artificialeyes.tv/ reblog/2007/02/pixel_pirates_ii_soda_jerk_int.html (accessed 29 June 2012).
16.Noel King, ‘Things that Move Fast Through the Landscape: An Interview with George Miller’, Metro Magazine, No. 123, p. 28.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Australia. Production Company: Crossroads. Director: George Miller. Producer: Byron Kennedy. Scriptwriters: James McCausland, George Miller and Byron Kennedy. Cinematographer: David Eggby. Music: Brian May. Cast: Mel Gibson (Max Rockatansky), Joanne Samuel (Jessie Rockatansky), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Toe-cutter), Steve Bisley (Jim Goose), Vince Gill (Nightrider), Tim Burns (Johnny the Boy), Roger Ward (Fifi Macaffee), Geoff Parry (Bubba Zanetti), Sheila Florance (May Swaisey).]
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.